Fiction and Drama
Scenes from an infestation
The following scenes are excerpted from Buzz, a full-length play. The action takes place in a loft apartment over the course of two days. All characters appear in their underwear, which is utilitarian in style, nothing fancy.
Tom is removing plastic coverings from furniture and unpacking small domestic objects: books, et cetera. He is mid- to late thirties, not in the best shape, overdue for a haircut. He retains much of the physical and intellectual authority granted him by past successes in school, the theater, and with women, and is mostly good-humored even when distraught. Lately, though, his thoughts tend to confusion, and he will come to seem somewhat puzzled and aghast, like a man just informed of bad news.
Having tidied the room, Tom sits down. Listens a moment for a sound. Hears none, is pleased. Begins to write in notebook, or to type. Suddenly looks up—startled, suspicious—at some noise.
Sasha enters wearing a three-quarter-length springtime coat. She is thirtyish and a beauty, about six months pregnant. With a ready wit and considerable physical grace, she nevertheless seems slightly more nervous than is warranted, as if no one—till now?—has ever prized her in the measure she would seem to deserve. Her bouts of sarcasm, even harshness, do little to conceal a basic goodness.
She stands still, listens for a sound, hears none. Removes coat. Walks farther into the apartment, scanning for motion, sound. Nothing.
Sasha Thank God. Thank me. Sometimes you get what you pay too much for.
Now she addresses audience:
Oh, it’s like how it almost makes you glad to’ve had the nightmare, now that you’re awake and safe, you know? And God, it has been such a, literally, such a stupid . . . I mean, where’s the dignity—terrorized is probably too strong a word—but where’s the dignity in being literally annoyed to death by . . . ? Not that they necessarily even grated on me so much at first, whenever that was. But then Tom—see, like the danger of another human being, it turns out, is they might actually affect and in-fluence you the way once upon a time you fantasized a fellow human would. For example, what if he’s an artist and you start seeing things the fucked-up but also true and undeniable way that artists—isn’t this the theory? (beat) Sorry, I’m not super practiced at speaking to an audience who’s not even there. I’ve never been in a play before! (pause; grateful) Oh God, it is so quiet in here. (addressing absent flies) So thank you all for having gone away.
Tom enters with bouquet of flowers, wearing three-quarter-length winter coat and scarf.
And thank you for having come back.
Tom Think I wouldn’t?
Sasha Not bearing gifts. There were no—?
Tom It was very quiet.
Sasha No wonder they’re the best in the city! And I love those white suits they have!
Tom The guys from the—?
Sasha Who do you think? The ones in black, they’re the bad guys. The good guys are in white. I love those suits! It makes you feel like they’re cleaning up nuclear waste or something.
Tom is smiling agreeably but does not share her delight.
Aren’t you beside yourself with . . . quiet? You seem—I sense moderately elevated affect, but not—
Tom No, I feel good. In fact I started over.
Sasha Is that good? Starting over? (with broader reference) I guess it is. (non sequitur) Why the winter coat?
Tom I like to observe the seasons with appropriate attire.
Sasha (affectionate; seductive) Take off your stupid coat.
Tom does so. Noticing his underwear; alarmed:
Wait, Tom, you have them on you! You have—
Tom No, no. This is not from here. These stains derive from the world at large. From the florist, more particularly.
Sasha (very relieved) You freaked me out! (beat) So you got some work done?
Sasha You could focus?
Tom Like a laser.
Sasha Yay! (beat) How goes the love scene? Or is it scenes, plural?
Tom I feel like I can do a pretty credible portrayal of love at the moment.
Sasha (arranging flowers) Is the heroine maybe a statuesque beauty—
Tom Even while arranging flowers—
Sasha The fineness of whose features is excelled only by the goodness of her heart?
Tom People might not believe my alter ego was so lucky.
Sasha It’s always plausible when the woman’s too good for the man. (beat) And does the heroine show her love for the man she loves—sorry, redundant—but does she like, manifest her—?
Tom By hiring the good guys in the white suits—?
Sasha Yeah, and maybe she’s six months pregnant? And there’s this interesting paradox or irony or whatever where the embodiment of fertility is also the agent of extermination?
Tom Sounds a bit abstract.
Sasha I don’t feel abstract. How many gray hairs would she have?
Tom Not one too many.
Sasha Even if there were more all the time? (beat) What I find interesting about the statuesque, pregnant, and dare I say well-spoken heroine—
Tom Hey, who’s writing this thing?
Sasha It’s like life. It’s super naturalistic. Basically writes itself.
Tom So what do you need me for?
Sasha Um . . . your DNA.
Your smile. (beat) And your play!
Tom No one needs another—
Sasha So reason not the need!
Tom You know I think I felt more comfortable when I dated less intelligent women.
Sasha Remember that I’m not accomplished. (beat) Actually what I was going to say I find interesting and even—can I say this?—kind of attractive about our heroine is that here she’s working a pretty meaningless job, in order, temporarily, to contribute to the upkeep of her playwright husband—
Tom Or boyfriend. Are they married?
Sasha They’re in love, is the point.
Sasha So here she’s working a pretty, in fact entirely meaningless office job—
Tom Glass-and-steel-tower office job?
Sasha Right. Ideal space for them to go crazy in, by the way.
Tom So I hear.
Sasha Crazy with their own meaninglessness. Their frantic buzzing nihilism. As I believe somebody once called it.
Tom Or whatever motivates them.
Sasha I mean their frantic, miniature, weirdly hyperactive buzzing almost, like, challenges the human activity going on in the glass-and-steel office tower in terms of not meaning shit.
Tom They were bad today?
Sasha Have I mentioned looking forward to maternity leave?
Tom Should I have my heroine work in publishing, then?
Sasha Call it texting, maybe. Only would it be too particularly depressing if she also worked as an editor for a lifestyle publication gearing its texting to the dwindling population of the increasingly rich? Ick. Could we still regard our heroine as a heroine—?
Tom The publication is called Ick?
Sasha I like that. Ick. (purring publicity voice as she massages breasts) Prestige. Performance. Poise. Ick.
Tom Maybe we should draw the blinds.
Sasha I don’t know, I think for commercial purposes you’ve got to include as much sex as you can. (beat) But for me half the whole beauty of the story is that the sexy yet good-hearted heroine, the highly intelligent but vocationally unfulfilled female lead—
Tom We can call her Sasha ? I’m attached to the name.
Sasha Sasha, schmasha. The important thing is that the present meaning of her semi-meaningless job she’s come to think of as sort of a postponed version of the ultimate meaning of his—
Tom Really? Has she? Better be a good play.
Sasha (suddenly more earnest) Tom, don’t you see? You have gotten through to me.
Tom (faintly grim) And here we are, wherever I got us through to.
Sasha So today was really quiet?
Tom Best birthday present ever. Seriously. (beat) By the way, when did you say these people were coming?
Sasha Tom, I know if you can hear—if you can listen—
Tom I like listening to you, Sasha.
Sasha (lightly, but with emotion) So transcribe me. Make me immortal. In my mortality. And surrounded out there by all these . . . Look at my slip. Two weeks old and it’s covered with their goo.
Tom (randy levity) I’ve got some goo I could cover you with.
Sasha Oh God, our baby’s going to be so embarrassed by its dork progenitors.
Tom That’s when you have children. When you’re too old to be cool. Let the kid be cool.
Sasha Do you think I’m narcissistic? Trying to get you to, maybe not immortalize—
Tom We could hope for an extended run.
Sasha Yeah, to extend the run. Of my perishing beauty and ageless witticisms. (beat) All I’ve done in my life is serial monogamy and six months of pregnancy! I’m a divorcée from a starter marriage who works at Ick!
Tom (laughing) It’s not called that.
Sasha But you’ll be changing all the names.
Tom Especially the unspeakable ones. I won’t mention capitalism, for example.
Sasha Don’t! Because it includes my job.
Tom It includes all living things. (beat) So I won’t say anything about the environment either. (beat) And ecology and economy share a common prefix, in eco-, which I guess we’d do well to avoid.
Sasha What does that mean anyway, eco-? Might as well know what it means when we don’t bring it up.
Tom You know this. It means household. In Greek.
Sasha Really? That’s appalling. I don’t want the economy in here.
Tom Economy means household management. You know, husbanding one’s resources. Managing one’s slaves.
Sasha One’s wives.
Tom Commodifying one’s psyche to the extent the market will bear.
Sasha So what does ecology mean then? Trashing the household? (pause) At least I’ve carried out a successful extermination.
Sasha I mean scurrying back to the grounds for my narcissism . . . What I have to feel good about.
Tom (with some reluctance) We do have to remember it may not be one hundred percent—
Sasha (a bit suspicious) Why do you say that?
Tom They say that. The company. In the literature.
Sasha I hate it that the word literature refers both to literature and to things that totally aren’t. (pause) But isn’t it totally quiet in here?
Tom One could almost write a play. (beat) So what should we make for these people? You know, I don’t quite remember Dan.
Sasha Darling, that’s only because we’ve never met him.
Sasha , Tom , Melanie , and Dan are finishing dinner. Over course of scene, they drink from empty glasses and eat, with naked forks, from empty bowls or plates.
Melanie Mmn. So good. Did I say that already?
Slightly younger than Sasha , Melanie is blandly pretty and confronts the world with a determined cheerfulness in spite of which she is sometimes curiously acute.
Sasha You’re being nice. It was a little—
Dan I don’t think so.
Melanie ’s boyfriend Dan wears a loosened necktie around his bare neck. His bonhomie has some aggression in it, and his self-confidence may seem in place of actual selfhood.
Sasha I was going to say overcooked.
Dan Definitely not overcooked.
Sasha I feel like actually it was both. On the inside—
Melanie Omigod so good.
Sasha Seriously, it’s nothing.
Tom (out) Ha ha. It is nothing. Can you bear this?
Smilingly he pours out an empty water glass over Dan’s head. Dan and women are oblivious.
Dan So Melanie also tells me—I think I’m getting this right—you’re a comedian?
Tom No no. My last—
Sasha Not your last, your latest.
Melanie Which remember, Dan? We Netflixed it?
Tom My latest play is, or was, comic.
Melanie I thought the movie version was just so humorous and funny.
Tom Great. Thanks. (beat) Funnier than the play?
Melanie Actually, I never got a chance to see—
Tom That’s all right. The movie was—it was more cinematic. (beat) And definitely more remunerative.
Melanie Honestly, sometimes I have a hard time with actual people right in front of me.
Everyone looks at her.
With a play, I mean. Not in real life.
Tom (perhaps not enough of a joke) For me life’s where I find it hardest.
Melanie But I mean in the theater it’s like it’s almost too much, you know? Somehow, in real life, it’s like you almost don’t notice how real other people are because you are too? Does that make sense?
Tom Go on.
Melanie Whereas at a play you’re like, Omigod those are actual people that things are happening to. (reflective) I guess in real life it’s like you don’t see that it’s happening. Whatever’s happening.
Tom hears something, glances an instant in the direction of the sound; smiles tightly.
I mean people could be having tragedies all over, but when it’s on a stage somehow you can tell that people are the things that things are happening to.
Dan I have more the opposite problem. To me the theater never seems real enough. You want to be like, Don’t you ever leave this room?
Tom (trying to remain good-humored) I don’t, is the thing. I stay in this room all day.
Sasha (oddly defensive of him) You do not. Where did those flowers come from?
Melanie But it’s more than a room. It’s a loft.
Tom Just what the realtor said.
Melanie (a bit proud) Dan is getting into real estate. He feels like we’ve hit a definite bottom.
Dan Probable bottom. Definitely.
Tom (dry) We find this neighborhood achieves a nice balance between retreating gentrification and hard-core ineradicable poverty.
Dan I’ll look into it.
Tom What is your main—what is it you’re mostly into? Sasha told me but I . . . (over Dan’s words) have amnesia.
Dan By day I’m an analyst. Equities. But I moonlight in Class C residential realty.
Tom Well, welcome.
Melanie I’m so bad at math!
Tom (out) How can anyone endure one more of these?
Sasha (not having heard Tom any more than the others have; also out to audience and unheard by others) It will be good to invite new people. That’s what I thought. I thought, fresh clean apartment, springlike day, hope we can believe in or whatever.
Melanie I feel like if the economy wasn’t just numbers I could almost understand it.
Dan Melanie says that. I tell her the economy is people.
Absently Melanie has smashed a fly on the table and is smearing the remains on her bra.
Sasha (alarmed, to Tom) Did that just happen?
Tom (to Dan ) Personally I’d think exterminators must be doing all right, economically. For instance. (to Sasha) Because they offer a valuable service. They may not eliminate every last one, but they do a pretty good—
Dan Extermination services? You’re wondering how are they performing?
Tom Don’t tell us. They’re making a killing.
Sasha (brave face, but distraught) His new play’s not a comedy, don’t worry.
Melanie (genuine concern) It’s a . . . tragedy?
Sasha I don’t know.
Melanie (to Tom) How is the playwriting industry these days?
Tom I mean after food, shelter, underwear, I personally would think freedom from bugs is kind of a nondiscretionary desire. Isn’t this the reason humans lost their fur, I was reading? Because otherwise we’d be jumping with fleas.
Dan I think it really depends what we’re exterminating here. Obviously there was going to be widespread general growth in extermination services for a while, for totally obvious reasons. But now that some time has past, let’s say we know what geological era we’re living in or whatever—
Melanie It’s like human is the new dinosaur.
Dan (somewhat annoyed at the interruption) The past few years, I was saying, you’re seeing some significant regional variation emerge with these services. Because here, with us, I don’t have to tell you, we have some musca domestica that are probably at elevated levels. Other places, mosquito distribution has shifted. Or obviously there are regional scorpion developments we’re all aware of. And scorpions tend to respond well to extermination.
Tom They’re stoics. Good for them.
Dan Right. Except up until recently it wasn’t all that easy to invest so broadly in extermination, because a lot of these were little mom-and-pop operations, definitely not exchange-traded, but now a lot of the mom-and-pop—
Sasha (dismayed) Mom and pop!
Dan These smaller bit players, a lot of them have consolidated together or been driven out, and yet—this is the thing—yet at the same time things are still kind of regionally based. You don’t yet see transnational market-cap superpowers like with, say, soft drinks or jet aircraft. So, nutshell, I’d say maybe find a really afflicted region, let’s say maybe the arachnids are larger because they don’t have the same frosts—an environment like that might be the place to be—
Tom With your money.
Dan Sure. Assuming a relatively constant human population and therefore market. That’s the tricky thing, if the humans start fleeing.
Melanie At least no one can leave the planet.
Dan But you’re asking me on this continent, I would say the industry has largely matured. Definitely not where I’d look for metastasizing growth. And now maybe conventional wisdom would have it that these services, at least they’re going to hold their own, right?
Tom (shooing fly) I should think so. (to Sasha) But that’s the same one, Sash. Two is not a large number.
Sasha Of human beings it is!
Melanie What are you guys talking about?
Tom Same thing you are. Dan is. Bugs. Pests.
Sasha Humanity, actually.
Dan But here’s where I’m kind of contrarian. So my kind of against-the-grain thinking about these traditional services for flies and such, like you have here?
Sasha Just so you know, we don’t have and such. Don’t you have them?
Dan Do I personally in my apartment? Sure. Definitely not a pest-free environment.
Melanie Definitely not! (beat) I mean not that mine is either. The whole concept of pest-free—
Dan (to Sasha) When I said you I meant us. And as I was saying, in my view, the everyday like housefly-oriented services could honestly tank in the near- to mid-term. People know better by now.
Sasha (appalled) No they don’t.
Dan You could analogize it to maybe diet pills or hair regrowth formula. The pounds come back—
Tom The hair does not.
Dan Exactly. So in this case it’s more like the pounds.
Melanie (compassionate) We have so much prejudice toward fat people.
Dan Almost might as well be a revolving door. Exterminators, flies, flies, exterminators . . .
Sasha puts her hands to her face.
And there is only so much of a product that is not effective that you can sell before the market is going to dwindle down to basically all that’s left is the sucker market.
Tom (glancing at Sasha ) Personally, I love suckers. I would never bring a child, for example, into a world without suckers.
Dan I’m not being anti-sucker per se. I’m just saying if your product that you’re selling is an unefficacious service—ultimately your growth is going to be limited by the fixed proportion of, say, gullible or uninformed individuals in the population.
Tom Who’s saying it’s fixed? I know I’m more ignorant all the time. With a shorter attention span and a worse memory. I see growth in the sucker market.
Dan But I mean if all you’re doing is filling your house with poison for no long-term benefit—
Tom What about short-term? I’d say the short term is where we live these days.
Melanie Especially for flies!
Tom So if in the short term a household experiences a marked reduction—I mean, say you had scores of them a day, or triple digits on special occasions, and now you’re down to a few over dinner—that’s a valuable service, no? Don’t you think so, Sasha?
Dan Look, I’m not saying that human beings are not excellent at wiping out a lot of species—
Tom We’re great at it!
Melanie They say we live in an era of mass extinction.
Dan All I’m saying is if extermination wasn’t basically false advertising, you’d have a lot of repeat clients for these services. And that’s what you don’t see. You don’t see—
Tom I don’t know, do something right, you don’t need to do it again.
Sasha is sniffling.
It’s OK, baby.
Sasha Don’t say baby to me about them!
Melanie Omigod you guys didn’t just like have somebody come? (beat) Did you?
(Sasha gets up to clear table.)
Tom We did. To be frank. Just moved back in yesterday. You have to vacate the premises for a few days. Take out your books, clothes, bedding. Anything permeable.
Dan Oh shit. I’m sorry.
Tom No, it’s nice. You go to a hotel for a few days. It’s like a second honeymoon. Or a first. If you never got married.
Melanie (to Dan) Dummy!
Dan (swiping absentmindedly at fly) I’m sorry if I was . . .
Note: From here on, all characters, at director’s and actors’ discretion, should betray, in small gestures too subtle and frequent to indicate, a nearly constant low-level awareness of flies. This only rarely erupts into broad gestures such as stage directions indicate. In other words, the universal infestation should never be forgotten for long nor should the fly-swatting become too hammy or frequent.
It’s just my analysis of the industry.
Tom It’s OK. Analysts exist to bring us . . . analysis. Even if it’s bad—
Dan I think it’s pretty solid analysis.
Tom I mean in the sense of bad news.
Melanie It’s like all bad news these days!
Dan In your defense—
Tom Why, thank you.
Dan It hasn’t been all that widely reported. Exterminators take out a lot of ads on the remaining news sites. Hasn’t necessarily been a lot of critical reporting.
Tom (confidentially) There’s not some sort of industry leader whose method is more . . . ?
Dan Not to my knowledge.
Melanie I guess you guys really don’t like them!
Sasha (to Melanie ; misspeaking) You don’t find him annoying?
Dan looks at her.
I mean them, the— Sorry. You two really aren’t bothered by them?
Melanie It’s like do I mind war or something. Or poverty and diseases.
Sasha (a bit severe) And the answer’s yes, right? You do mind those things.
Dan Personally I would obviously mind if I were in a war or impoverished or sick. That would impede my way of life. But—
Melanie That’s what I mean. They’re annoying—
Dan If that.
Melanie But they don’t impact your way of life.
Tom (out) I guess they’re not big readers. I can’t read with the . . .
Dan Melanie’s right. I don’t think most people consider this a serious quality-of-life indicator.
Tom Then why hire exterminators?
Dan I think that’s mostly older people. No offense.
Sasha But you’re not a child! And when you were a child, can you deny that when we were kids—look, I’m not saying I had a happy childhood! I’m not saying I respected the intelligence and enjoyed the company of my playmates. I’m not claiming my parents didn’t maim and rape my soul the same as any little child.
Tom She’s kidding.
Sasha True. The prudes never laid a hand on me! You can’t imagine how lonely it was.
Tom We bonded over a sick sense of humor.
Sasha Yet when I think back I distinctly do not recall this number of—
Melanie (oddly, to Tom) But why are you so interested in . . . ? I haven’t heard anyone . . .
Dan (under his breath) Carry on . . .
Melanie In like two or three years. Like this. About them.
Sasha Does it really not bother you to come home to this constant ambient—?
Dan I listen to music. I think most people who are not Islamic fundamentalists or whatever don’t have a problem keeping some music on.
Sasha Even with music on, you can hear them!
Dan You could hear the traffic if you listened. You could hear the air-conditioning and computers.
Melanie You could hear your heart, supposedly.
Sasha (some vehemence) Maybe it doesn’t affect you as a financial analyst, but I don’t know if a person can overhear herself think anymore.
Tom You may have noticed she’s pregnant.
Melanie Congratulations! Again!
Tom And, you know, pregnancy—hormones—
Dan Am I better than an African? That’s how I look at it. Am I somehow better than an African that I shouldn’t ever have something land on me?
Sasha Africans shouldn’t have flies in their eyes! Only dead people should!
Tom Sasha, stop. You sound like me.
Sasha Honestly, I blame the flies, and where appropriate the scorpions, for the decline of art and thought and plays, not to mention lifestyle magazines—
Melanie Scorpions are like totally quiet! (beat) There’s been a decline of thought?
Tom There’s been a decline of my productivity lately. That Sasha would like to see reversed.
Melanie You guys could try antiphobia therapy. Maybe you have a phobia.
Dan Probably a better use of your money. (to Melanie) Getting kind of late, babe.
Melanie (to Tom) Good luck on your next play. (pleasant) At first when Sasha told me your last name I didn’t even know you were famous!
Sasha He’s interviewed all the time.
Tom I am so famous that tomorrow I have an interview with a journalist from a college newspaper.
Sasha It’s not a radio station?
Tom Or radio station. Of a prestigious third-tier college.
Melanie If they bother your thinking maybe you could think at night with the lights off.
Tom I might think dark thoughts.
Melanie I’m sure you’ll be funny again.
Sasha (to Dan) There’s one on your head.
Dan Enough with the—! Dinner was excellent, thank you very much—
Melanie So good.
Dan But enough with the fucking—I mean, how many civilians were just killed in wherever? And I have a thing on my head!
Melanie It’s not, honey—it flew off.
Dan So let’s maybe get a sense of proportion!
Sasha And when those people were killed then they had flies all over them.
Dan But then they were dead. Which seems like the major difference. So I have one in my hair—
Melanie Honey, you don’t!
Dan (to Tom) At least I have hair, you know what I mean?
He and Melanie exit.
Tom (mildly what-the-fuck?) I have hair.